About the author:
Jonathan Franzen (born August 17, 1959) is an award-winning American novelist and essayist. Franzen was born in Chicago, Illinois, raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Swarthmore College. He also studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany. He lives on the Upper East Side of New York City, and writes for The New Yorker magazine.
Franzen's „The Corrections“, a novel of social criticism, garnered considerable critical acclaim in the United States. In September 2001, „The Corrections“ was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Franzen was, at the time, willing to participate in the selection, appearing in B-roll footage in his hometown of St. Louis (described in an essay in How To Be Alone entitled "Meet Me In St. Louis") and sitting down for a lengthy interview with Oprah. In October 2001, however, „The Oregonian“ printed an article in which Franzen made remarks expressing unease with the selection. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Oprah insignia being printed on his book by saying, "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it."
Soon afterward, Franzen's invitation to appear on Oprah's show was rescinded, with his "seemingly uncomfortable" attitude being cited as the reason. Although the controversy arguably caused damage to Franzen's reputation, it had little effect on the sales of „The Corrections“, which became one of the best-selling works of literary fiction of the 21st century so far and won both the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
„The Corrections“ by Jonathan Franzen is a novel about a standard midwestern family consisting of Gary, Chip, Denise and their parents Alfred and Enid Lambert. They lived together in the midwestern suburbs of St. Jude until all the kids were grown up and their ways separated. Enid and Alfred still live in St. Jude, both not willing to give up the house, even if their children, especially Gary, insist on it. Alfred has Parkinson and Enid is completely overstrained with the old man, who isn‘t able to take a shower alone anymore. Gary is a successful banker with three kids and a beautiful wife, but he suffers from clinical depression and paranoia and doesn‘t want to admit that. Chip is a former college professor, who got fired because he had an affair with one of his students. But a few months after his ejection, he receives the offer of an lithuanian business man to come with him and „rebuild the lithuanian economy“. Denise is a shooting star in the young cooking scene and tries to open a new restaurant. But she gets involved in a weird sexual triangle relationship with her boss and her boss‘ wife that leaves her completely confused and messed up. While her kids are trying to deal with their own lives, all that Enid wants is one last Christmas in St. Jude together.
About the characters:
Enid is a rather intelligent woman, who has spent all her life being a mother and a wife. She is decent and doesn‘t need much to be happy, but she often betrays herself and pretends to be more content than she really is. So Enid tries to rejoice even the smallest things in life and is obsessively anxious to bring high spirits in every hackled up situation:
„“I‘m wondering why we‘re having this particular conversation,“ Chip said to his mother. „Why this conversation and not some other conversation.“ „We‘re both terribly anxious,“ Enid replied, „to see where you work.“„ Enid tries to live a normal perfect live, pretending that none of her children is either depressed, or criminal or lesbian. She wants to live just like her neighbors, being a happy housewife with three successful happy kids, but in reality she has to take care for a cynical dependent husband, who doesn‘t love her anymore and has changed completely since they married.
Alfred is very rational and emotionless man. Life has taught him to never expect anything and to just try to get along with your situation as good as possible. He seems to be quite embittered, but he just doesn‘t want to make a fuss about anything and leave the things as they are. When he was younger, he was a very hardworking and busy man, wanting his wife just to take care for the kids and prepare dinner. Now that he‘s dement and losing control over his body, he wants to be left alone, like a once proud injured lion, that licks its wounds. Alfred feels ashamed and projects all his bad moods on Enid, who is just trying to make everything right. „“Al, didn‘t you say you wanted to see where Chip worked?“ Enid shouted. Alfred shook his head. “There‘s no time.“ The baggage carousel circulated nothing. “Did you take your pill?“ Enid said. “Yes,“ Alfred said. He closed his eyes and repeated slowly, “I took my pill. I took my pill. I took my pill.“„
Gary is a typical newly rich family father. He is smart, he knows what he wants and he feels completely superior to many other people. He tries to fulfill every wish of his wife and his sons, while performing the best he can at work. But Gary is not happy and he doesn‘t want to confess that to himself. In fact, he is depressed. Like Enid he pretends that everything‘s OK, doing all the things a good family father would do. At the end of the day he is so exhausted of this game that he has to drown his growing desperation in lots of alcohol, just to start another fight with his wife. „“Gary, you‘re depressed. Do you realize that?“ He laughed. “I don‘t think so.“ “You‘re brooding, and suspicious, and obsessive. You walk around with a black look on your face. You don‘t sleep well. You don‘t seem to get pleasure out of anything.“„
Chip is some kind of a rebellious lateral thinker. He is very clever, but he doesn‘t know what to do with all that ideas. He is always trying to persuade people of his opinion, but since he can‘t express properly what he wants to say, he feels misunderstood. Chip‘s reaction to that is rebellion, but he doesn‘t really know what he is rebelling against. He is also drowning his insecurity in alcohol and he also wants to pretend that he is content with his life, even lying to his parents about a job he doesn‘t have. „Chip felt he couldn‘t make the call without some kind of pick-me-up or treat. Some kind of energizer. But TV caused him such critical and political anguish that he could no longer watch even cartoons without smoking cigarettes…“
Denise is the youngest and maybe most „innocent“ Lambert. She grew up quite happily and is now an attractive and successful woman, who hasn‘t yet found herself. Always being attracted to either married or much older men, she is never sure about her sexuality. On the outside she wants to appear strong, determined and as a good daughter, if it‘s necessary. But on the inside she is very vulnerable and confused, not knowing what she really wants. „Denise had always trouble saying no when she felt wanted in the right way. Growing up in suburban St. Jude, she‘d been kept at safe distances from anybody who might have wanted her this way, but after she finished high school…she became acquainted with the desires of a dozen older men.“
Interpretation and own opinion:
It think the book criticizes the modern american society with all its pretended innocence and its „perfectness“. Enid stands for the majority of people that want to have everything „just like everyone else“ and that would give themselves up to reach that goal. Alfred embodies the result of all that effort and fuss: A dull, spiritless and cynical society, that is just trying to fulfill its own needs very selfishly and that is a burden for the rest. The Lambert children show the real face of America: Not always morally correct, sometimes criminal and often not matching the standards of that imaginary society.
The perfect family father, who is a depressed alcoholic, the young clever college student, who has sex on drugs with a student and ends up as a coworker of a criminal warlord in eastern Europe and the beautiful and talented young cook, who has affairs with both parts of a married couple. These three cases show a wide variety of the things this society likes to hide and Franzen appears to be a master in packing this subtle criticism into one funny, heartily and entertaining family story, that describes the lives of five completely different people, who are however deeply connected: Just like the society that America wants to be and the one it is.
The big problem, that is also the main theme of the book, is pretending. Everybody pretends to be able to carry on with his or her life, not noticing that their way of living will never lead them to happiness. Everybody is just choosing the most easy method to go for bliss, but as they develop, they learn that it won‘t work that way. Enid won‘t have all her problems with Alfred solved after one last christmas with the whole family, Alfred won‘t get his old state of mind back, even though he tries to stay independent, Gary won‘t get along with his family by pulling them to St. Jude, just to please Enid, Chip won‘t have all his money problems solved in moving to Lithuania and supporting a local warlord and Denise won‘t find her true sexuality sleeping with her boss‘ wife.
„Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn‘t have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to.“
I think that this line indicates the main problem of Enid very well. She‘s trying to live her „perfect“ life and be happy all the time, denying that she has a sick husband that is losing more and more of his mind every day. This sentence appears already on the third page, but the reader understands not until page 600, that Alfred is Enid‘s „correction“ that has to be made.
„You were outfitted as a boy with a will to fix things by yourself and with a respect for individual physical objects, but eventually some of your internal hardware (…) became obsolete, and so, even though many other parts of you still functioned well, an argument could be made for junking the whole human machine.“
This is a perfect summary of Alfred‘s crisis: He knows that his losing his mental abilities, but there is nothing he can do about it. He also knows that he could still do so many things, but his mind is just not working the way he wants and can‘t control his body anymore. Especially as a man who was technically talented when he was younger, he suffers a lot from his disease and just wants his family to accept his handicap, leaving him trying what he still can do and what he can‘t anymore.
„What Gary hated most about the Midwest was how unpampered and unprivileged he felt in it. St. Jude in its optimistic egalitarianism consistently failed to accord him the respect to which his gifts and attainments entitled him.“
He we can see the problem that Gary has: He thinks that everyone should admire his intelligence and his opulence and it makes him crazy that these stupid midwestern people just don‘t understand how special he is. But in reality he feels nothing of that superiority and so he has to point out his imaginary privileges very insistently and accuse the others for not understanding how great he is. This anger makes it easy for him to overplay his depression.
„ In order to salvage his artistic and intellectual ambitions, he added a long theoretical opening monologue. But this monologue was so unreadable that every time he turned on his computer he had to go and tinker with it.“
That is Chip‘s issue: Trying to persuade everybody with his intelligence, he forgets that he can show he cleverness too by just leaving that monologue out. But since he has to include it in his play, nobody will like his work and he‘ll feel misunderstood again.
„She wanted above all to be a private person, an independent individual. She didn‘t want to belong to any group, let alone a group with bad haircuts and strange resentful clothing issues. She didn‘t want a label, she didn‘t want a lifestyle…“
This statement describes Denise character very well: She never wanted to be in a group or at least never found one she liked. You could either relate that to her sexuality or to her whole person, one way or the other Denise never wanted to define herself, she just wanted to be happy. But at the end she will realize, that you have to find yourself first to be happy.
„The Corrections“ is the story of an american family in pieces. Their ways separated and everyone has big problems to solve in his or her life, but always choosing the wrong way to succeed. What I find remarkable is large quantity of themes in the book, that are always somehow connected. It is just like a chronicle, with a lot of flashbacks and changes of time and place, but in the end it all makes sense again. Every character is extremely precisely elaborated, but you never lose yourself in the sheer amount of information and every episode about a character helps you to understand him or her better and fits right in the big ensemble without confusing the reader. Even though the story is not told chronologically and changes its focus often from one character to the other you can feel a great suspension building throughout the story that is finally released in the last very short chapter. The circle closes, and even though you couldn‘t believe that everything will turn out well on the last pages, Franzen manages to let all his characters literally correct their faults and start a new life in this last chapter.
Everybody corrected the life they were pretending and Enid, Gary, Chip and Denise can start over new. The stunning thing is that, despite the complex story and the abrupt ending, it all seems so natural. It just feels right that Alfred has to die and somehow relieve his whole family with it, it‘s like the sacrifice that was obvious throughout the whole book, but never came to the reader‘s (or my) mind. It just feels right how the Lambert children finally find what they were looking for, like Chip falling in love with Alfred‘s nurse, and it just feels right that Enid has finally found peace and satisfaction. Not to forget the brilliant way of Franzen‘s writing: Extremely clever and observant, but never without a big heart and good portion of humor. I was greatly entertained by that book and I would recommend it to anyone.